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4.17 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

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    in particular as a result of provisions in the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, and that police numbers fell by 1,500 between 1992-93 and 1997-98; further notes the action that the Government has taken in asking the Intelligence and Security Committee to review the handling of the Mitrokhin Archive, including key decisions taken before 1997; and welcomes the Government's initiatives to provide new money to fund the recruitment of 5,000 police officers over and above the number that would otherwise have been recruited, comprehensively to tackle crime and disorder and to develop a fairer, faster and firmer immigration and asylum system, through the Immigration and Asylum Bill, which will better serve genuine refugees and help reduce the number of abusive claims in the United Kingdom."

The kindest thing that can be said about the speech of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) is that it was not up to her usual standard. It was a confused diatribe from a party that failed in government and has done no better in opposition, that talked tough on law and order, but presided over a doubling of crime, that promised to increase police numbers, but allowed numbers to fall by 1,500 over five years--

Miss Widdecombe: Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: Later--sit down. Not even I intervened in the first two sentences of the right hon. Lady's speech, but I will give way later.

The Conservative party said that it would get a grip on the asylum system, but it left only chaos and confusion. It shouts about immigration control, but ordered a secret amnesty for asylum seekers. Its record in opposition as well as in government is as incredible as it is incoherent.

Let me deal with each of the points that are raised in the motion. I understand that it is a general omnibus Home Office debate and look forward to any questions that my right hon. and hon. Friends may have about the attitude of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald to fox hunting. I deal first--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) must contain herself. I am sure that she will be allowed to intervene eventually.

Mr. Straw: I will deal first with the issue of police numbers.

Miss Widdecombe rose--

Mr. Straw: I give way.

Miss Widdecombe: I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he agree that it is a fact that he inherited 16,000 more police officers than the previous Government were left by Labour? Will he just acknowledge that? Does he agree that, in our last five years in government, we increased the number of police constables by more than 2,000; that he has reduced that number by 922; and that he has presided over an overall decrease in the number of police officers of more than 1,000? Those are the facts, and he cannot deny them. Will he now cease the rhetoric and start apologising?

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Lady had 30 minutes in which to make her speech, but evidently felt that she had not made her points properly. [Hon. Members: "Answer."] I am addressing the issue of police numbers.

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If the right hon. Lady wants to go back, the fastest rate of increase in police numbers occurred between 1974and 1979, when they increased by 2,000 annually. [Interruption.] I am happy to give the House the facts. Between 1979 and 1991, the numbers increased by 1,000 annually.

From 1992 to 1997--the period in which the right hon. Lady was an adornment to the previous Government--the previous Administration promised that police numbers would rise by 5,000. That pledge was given by the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), and repeated by the right hon. Lady in January 1997. They promised that police numbers would rise, whereas police numbers declined by 1,500 between April 1993 and March 1998, under budgets decided by Conservative Home Secretaries.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): In 1998.

Mr. Straw: In January 1997, the right hon. Lady announced in the House the police budgets and capping for financial years 1997 and 1998, which began before the general election. The previous Administration decided those budgets.

I shall tell the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) something else: police numbers did indeed fall by 718 in 1998-99. The only difference between the money that we have spent on police numbers and the money that the previous Administration said that they would spend on police numbers is that, in our Budget, police spending rose by £20 million.

What is clear beyond peradventure is that, when the previous Prime Minister and the right hon. Lady promised 5,000 officers to the House and to the Conservative party conference, they had neither the money nor the mechanism to deliver on that promise. That is why numbers fell.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): How does the Home Secretary square that comment with the statement made this year by Fred Broughton, chairman of the Police Federation, who said:

Mr. Straw: Fred Broughton was entirely right, but he was talking about the decline in police numbers that I have just described. Under Tory Budgets, numbers decreased by 1,500. Moreover, they would have decreased much further in 1998-99 had it not been for our additional money.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman after I have developed this point.

Against the background of falling police numbers, I spoke to my good and close friends in the Treasury--[Interruption.] It is a verity that all Home Secretaries have close and cordial relations with the Treasury. I secured

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£35 million extra, over and above that allocated in the comprehensive spending review for next year, to recruit 5,000 more police officers than planned. That is what I secured from the Treasury, and that is what we shall do. Next year, there will be £35 million in new money, with more to follow in the succeeding two years. There will be new money to recruit more officers, over and above those already planned. The new money was welcomed by the Association of Chief Police Officers, which called it"a significant step forward", and by the Police Superintendents Association, which described it and other announcements we made as a "huge injection of cash".

As I told the Select Committee this morning, revised estimates now indicate that the baseline for recruits over the next three years is not the 11,000 that I gave at the Labour party conference, but 15,000, with the 5,000 as additional new recruits. Together with the extra £34 million that we are investing in extending the DNA database and the extra £50 million going towards the transformation of police communications, our crime fighting fund represents a huge injection of cash.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way, because his answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) was singularly unpersuasive. Is it not a source of concern to the right hon. Gentleman that, so far in 1999, information from 23 of the 43 police authorities in England and Wales reveals that no fewer than 2,324 people have left the police force, and that there has been a reduction in the numbers in Lancashire, incorporating the right hon. Gentleman's own constituency? Does that fact not help to explain why, in the past seven days alone, the chairman of the Police Federation, the vice-chairman of the Police Federation and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner have united in condemnation of his inadequate record?

Mr. Straw: Given my experience with the 11,000 figure, I hesitate to offer a calculation off the top of my head. However, if there is a loss through retirement and resignation of about 2,400 in half the police forces, that is roughly equivalent to the total wastage and retirements--about 5,000 or 6,000--in previous years. The full and detailed projections were set out in the information that I gave to the Select Committee, which is also in the Library.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Given that the Government were elected on a manifesto promise to put more officers back on the beat, and given that the memorandum that the Home Secretary brought to the Select Committee this morning showed a figure at the date Labour took over of 127,158 officers in England and Wales, is it a commitment of the Government that, by the end of this Administration, there will be more officers in total and more constables in particular?

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